Tolerated Incompetence

Incompetence has evolved over time, it aggravates organisational cultures, and when left untreated within organisations it leads to avoidable errors, increased turnover of competent staff and reduced performance. Richard Boyatzis (1982) argues that every organisation creates a social environment; the question is whether the environment is suitable enough for the organisation to achieve its goals.

Incompetence is everywhere; the industry experts that were interviewed during my research say;

  • It must be tolerated to a certain extent to maintain harmony and fairness.
  • It must be fair to assume that everyone is incompetent in one form or another.
  • Has anyone reached or exceeded their full potential?

Is it also fair to say that organisations tolerate incompetence to a certain degree; the experts argue the trick is to catch it before it reaches a critical point? Or is it, that incompetence is not an individual concern, but a problem with an organisation’s systems, structures and its culture?

“Tolerated Incompetence” is more powerful than Darth Vader’s Force- Choke; the research showed how it is slowly depriving organisations of vital oxygen. Rapid technological advancements, unstable economic circumstances and recent high profile executive behaviour in companies such as ENRON and HIH, tell us that it is now more than ever the time to change our way of thinking and tackle incompetence in workplace. This position is supported by researchers Amabile and Krammer (2011), where they found that managers today are missing the point when it comes to getting the best out of people in the workplace.

To prevent misconceptions, we must ensure the reader (that’s you) has a clear understanding of the problem. Perceptions and interpretations of incompetence are personal, situational and environmental, however in his book “The Competent Manager” Richard Boyatzis (1982) defined competence as “the attainment of specific results (i.e. outcomes) required by the job through specific actions while maintaining or being consistent with policies, procedures, and conditions of the organizational environment”. This definition provides a good foundation of understanding incompetence at an individual level, which is essential knowledge that will enable readers to recognise the issues discussed, however a deeper explanation is required to fully understand incompetence in an organisational context.

Throughout history our brains have developed a left-hemisphere dominance (McGilchrist, 2011) which has resulted in a world where we are trying to control the uncontrollable. As a result management today is mostly about maintaining the status quo through policy, procedure and making profits. This leads us to a perception that individuals are incompetent because they are unable to achieve superficial and profit motive goals. Yet the research showed that it is the very systems, process and collective state of mind that is incompetent. Individuals who are incompetent are simply in the wrong job.

Public education for 150 years has steered us away from our creative talents, directing us toward more academic studies to improve our chances of getting a job that we will probably despise. As we move into the 21st century people, purpose and creativity are becoming more important to the survival of organisations (Robinson, 2011, Amabile & Krammer, 2011). The solution to addressing incompetence is recognising that it is not 1, 2 or 3 things, and that it is a united construct of our values, beliefs, culture and education. To ensure long term survival, happiness and fulfilment it is fundamental that we change the way we think about work, our lives and our environment.

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